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Deadly Places, Public Spaces
When the Social Conference of Unemployed scheduled a demonstration on March 28, 1908, at 2:00 p.m. in Union Square, the parks bureau denied their request for a permit to speak. The huge crowd that gathered found a large police presence and the area roped off. This must have angered the self-professed radical socialist Selig Cohen, who called himself Selig Silverstein, for he returned to the square at 3:30 p.m. with a bomb.
As Silverstein approached a cluster of police near the park's center fountain, he nervously lit a cigarette and attempted to ignite the fuse to his bomb. Instead, he dropped the cigarette into the opening of the brass bulb containing nitroglycerine and dynamite. Sparks ignited, followed by a massive boom that shook people in the surrounding blocks. The bomb exploded in Silverstein's hand, and an innocent tailor next to him died. After a moment of stunned silence, chaos erupted, with people running in all directions. Police drove people from the square with their clubs and horses. A quick-thinking policeman attached a tourniquet to Silverstein's arm and rushed him to the hospital, where Silverstein said he was sorry he had not killed any policemen. He died a month later after having his hand amputated.
Washington Square Arch marks the Fifth Avenue entrance to the haunted Washington Square Park. This arch, dedicated in 1895 and designed by Stanford White, replaced a temporary wooden structure built to commemorate the 100th anniversary of George Washington's inauguration as the first president. Minetta Brook once flowed diagonally from the north to the southwest corner, and the Native American Sapokanikan tribe used the land in the surrounding area as a burial ground. In 1797, the land officially became designated as a potter's field and, in the years following, as a place for public executions by hanging. Stories abound that on stormy nights the apparitions of bodies have been seen hanging from the trees. During the height of the dreaded yellow fever outbreaks, from 1791 to 1821, officials used the land for shallow mass graves. When the area was used as a parade ground in 1826, cannon wheels unearthed human remains, so, in 1827, a public park was established. An estimated 20,000 people were buried beneath the tree-lined pathways and monuments, which may explain why many visitors capture orbs in their photographs.
Since the opening of Central Park in 1857, New Yorkers have flocked to its treed paths, lush lawns, and placid waterways to escape the frenetic pace of the city. At times, danger has followed. Although never as sinister as it was often portrayed, the park did report 35 murders between 1979 and 1986. The most sensational murder of that era occurred on August 26, 1986, when an 18-year-old woman died by strangulation at the hands of Robert Emmet Chambers Jr. The victim had met Chambers while drinking at a bar the night before, and the newspapers dubbed the crime "the Preppie Murder." After a controversial trial, Chambers accepted a plea deal of manslaughter in the first degree and was sentenced to 5 to 15 years in prison. Released on February 14, 2003, Chambers found himself behind bars again in 2008, serving a 19-year sentence for selling drugs.
Historically, crime and tragedy are rare in Central Park. Since the Gilded Age, people have enjoyed rowing in the summer and skating in the winter. And before there were ice rinks, people glided across the frozen lake at Seventy-second Street. Irving Brokaw, seen here skating with his wife, Lucile, on the lake in 1913, was the first American to compete in the Winter Olympics, finishing in sixth place in 1908.
Two sisters' passion for ice-skating continues today. In the 1800s, Janet Van der Voort and her sister Rosetta lived unremarkable lives together, never marrying but skating often. Janet wore dark purple velvet, and Rosetta shined in a red velvet cutaway coat. Through the years, on crisp winter days and even on balmy summer ones, people have continued to see them floating just above the lake. The phantoms' antique costumes leave no doubt as to their identities.
According to New York City ghost experts, apparitions often mingle with visitors at Grand Central Terminal. Cornelius Vanderbilt orchestrated the construction of the Grand Central depot (above), which opened in 1871. On January 8, 1902, a New Haven & Hartford Railroad train bound for Grand Central waited on the tracks in the Park Avenue tunnel when a steam locomotive from the New York Central Railroad plowed into it. People sitting in the rear car were pinned against the hot boiler for up to two hours. Scores were injured, and the death toll rested at 17. Although the train's engineer proved to be at fault, the accident further spurred the movement for electric trains, so the New York Central Railroad board improved the Park Avenue tunnel and built a new station (left). Completed in 1913, the new terminal became the largest station in the world.
The waiting room, seen here in 1904, was demolished and replaced with the spacious Vanderbilt Hall. In 1913, witnesses described seeing an anxious man wandering the station, wringing his hands, and saying that the train to hell was coming for him at midnight. As 12:00 midnight struck, the man vanished, and in the distance, a whistle was heard, even though the next train was not due until 12:05 a.m.
The station faced demolition in 1968, but the city protected it by giving it landmark status. In 1990, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority accepted a $425-million plan for renovation. Today, an estimated 21 million visitors pass through its corridors yearly, not counting the dead ones. Some have seen an apparition of a man with a black mustache wearing a black suit in the balcony area, watching the crowd below.
When it was completed, the Brooklyn Bridge earned the distinction of being the longest steel suspension bridge in the world, yet tragedy marred its beginnings. In addition to the more than 30 deaths during construction, a dramatic event occurred on the first day the bridge opened to the public, Decoration Day, May 30, 1883. On that day, a woman's scream started a panic that resulted in 12 people being trampled to death in a stairway.
Suicide also casts a dark shadow on the bridge's beauty. Since it was opened, people have traveled from miles away to jump from its high girders. One Brooklyn policeman assigned to the night shift answered numerous reports of jumpers. On many occasions, he rushed to the bridge hoping to avert a tragedy, only to discover that witnesses were seeing the apparition of a man who had successfully committed suicide. The officer asked for a transfer.
The streets turned deadly on July 13, 1865, when the worst case of urban violence in the nation's history erupted after the government instituted a draft by lottery drawing. Anger boiled over on the day of the drawing, when the poor immigrant population learned that, for $300, an individual could buy an exemption from the draft. Mobs first looted and burned Republican-owned businesses, but as the madness intensified, the protestors began attacking the black community. Blaming African Americans for the war and for taking jobs, the rioters burned and hung many from trees. As a mob marched to the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue, adults whisked the children to a boat bound for Blackwell's Island (now Roosevelt Island). The riots lasted for three days until the government pulled troops off the front lines and sent them into the city.
In 1808, the city filled in the sewage- and garbage-infested Collect Pond, a body of water north of Chambers Street. Three streets — Orange, Cross, and Anthony Streets — converged there, creating what became known as Five Points, seen here. The picturesque Paradise Square jutted into the intersection from the west. Unfortunately, because of poor engineering, the soft fill undermined foundations in the area, and poor drainage caused foul methane gas to escape. Affluent residents then left the area to poor immigrants and former slaves. On Cross Street, the Old Brewery, which once made Coutler's Beer, became an overcrowded tenement building, and the area around it earned the name Murderer's Alley. Although history does not support the legend that a murder a day occurred in Five Points, there is no disputing that the area stank, brothels abounded, and gangs ruled.
People crowded into the shabby tenement buildings in Baxter Alley, off Mulberry Bend east of Five Points. Jacob Riis took this photograph in 1888 and described the neighborhood as reeking with incest and murder. The violent Mulberry Boys, later named the Dead Rabbits, claimed the area as their territory. A political instrument of Tammany Hall, the Rabbits dictated how the neighborhood voted in elections.
In the 1880s, Mulberry Street became home to Italian immigrants and later powerful organized crime families. The Genovese, Bonanno, Gambino, and Gotti families had headquarters or owned establishments on the street. At 129 Mulberry Street, at the original location of Umberto's Clam House, a gunman shot dead the former Columbo mobster Joseph "Crazy Joe" Gallo while he dined with his family late on the night of April 6, 1972.
Pell and Mott Streets became the home of Chinese immigrants after railroad jobs dried up. Because they had no rights under the Chinese Exclusion Act, the mostly male population turned to traditional organizations known as tongs for support. Although most were legitimate operations, some dealt in gambling and drug dealing. Between 1900 and 1922, a total of 10 rival members from the Hip Sing Tong and the Four Brothers Society were murdered at numbers 9, 12, 21, 30 1/2, and 32 Pell Street (left). The On Leong Tong, another powerful Chinese organization with a violent past, had their headquarters at 14 Mott Street. On April 10, 1910, one of their gunmen allegedly started a shooting spree in front of 5 Mott Street (below). The ensuing battle between the Four Brothers, the Hip Song Tongs, and the On Leong Tongs lasted for four hours and killed four men.
Like Broadway, the Bowery began as a thoroughfare for the Native American population. It later became the road to Boston and a thriving theater district. After the elevated railroad arrived, sleazy bars and flophouses dominated the street. One notorious joint known as Suicide Hall stood at number 295. Legends abound that waiters robbed patrons and the downtrodden came there to end their lives. One Suicide Hall regular, Annie Moore, a known prostitute, lost her life at her ragged apartment a few blocks from the bar, in what the newspapers described as a "Ripper" murder. The man she lived with discovered her body on August 27, 1906. The killer slashed her throat and mutilated her body. Afterwards, an educated but tattered-looking man whom the locals called "Old Scratch" expressed a curious knowledge of Annie Moore's wounds and then disappeared. Moore's murder was never solved.
John Pierpont "Jack" Morgan Jr., born on September 7, 1867, followed his father's path into banking and philanthropy. He financed many of the Allied nations during World War I, angering some extremists, and on July 3, 1915, he suffered an assassination attempt at his Long Island mansion. He survived bullet wounds to his abdomen and hip, only to be the target of another mad person on September 16, 1920.
In this incident, the Trinity Church bells chimed the noon hour as a man drove a red wagon pulled by a bay-colored horse down Wall Street and stopped in front of the limestone faced Morgan Building at Wall and Broad Streets. The driver threw the reigns over the back of the horse and disappeared. As the last bell struck, the horse and wagon vanished in a mushroom cloud of yellow and green smoke.
Witnesses described feeling a concussive force that blew some of them from their feet and sent a car into the side of the Morgan Building. Then came a roar, followed by a hushed silence that lasted until screams of agony filled the air. Shattered windows rained from surrounding skyscrapers. Flames licked through the broken openings, singeing the clothes of people cut by shards of glass. One chauffeur bending over to crank the engine of his vehicle found himself under the car a moment later, while his female passenger landed outside on the sidewalk. In a state of panic, injured people ran down to Beaver Street and up to Liberty Street, trailing blood behind them.
Disfigured bodies lay in pools of blood on the steps of the Morgan Building and across the street. More lay around the corner on Broad Street and up Wall Street toward Trinity Church. The force of the explosion decapitated one woman and blew the clothing off others. The dead and dying numbered 38, and more than 150 suffered injuries.
The Morgan Building, thought to be the target of the blast, sustained the most destruction. Despite the fact that the structure had been deemed sound, the offices inside were wrecked. Desks and chairs were overturned, and all lighting fixtures and windows broken. Remarkably, only one 28-year-old clerk died there, after being buried by a falling skylight. Jack Pierpont Morgan Jr. was away on holiday in England at the time of the attack.
According to the New York Tribune, this photograph was taken 10 minutes after the Wall Street explosion, as the surrounding structures emptied of people. Police rushed to the site and were later praised for their quick response despite being overworked from a recent transit strike. On the steps of what was then the sub-treasury, the unscathed statue of the nation's iconic leader, George Washington, seemed to grimly survey the death and destruction beyond his outstretched arm.
The blast sent an axle onto the 38th floor of an adjacent building. The mangled horse and wounds to the dead revealed that the bomber used cast-iron slugs from window sashes as projectiles. No one ever stood trial for the senseless murders, however, many years later, Italian anarchist Mario Buda became a popular suspect because of his known use of slugs as shrapnel in bombs.
Night watchman William Hoey was convicted of shooting to death patrolman Daniel Neville on August 27, 1921, in this lot at Thirty-ninth Street between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues. Violence reigned in the area between Thirty-fourth and Fifty-ninth Streets from Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River after the arrival of the Eleventh Avenue railroad in 1851. Warehouses, slaughterhouses, and shabby tenements crowded the area, which was populated by poor Irish and African Americans, who fought often. One legend on the origin of the neighborhood's name tells of two policemen watching a street fight on a hot August night with one noting, "This neighborhood is hot as hell." To this, his partner replied, "Hell's cool. This here is Hell's Kitchen." During those rough times, police always patrolled in pairs and only during daylight hours. The area became gentrified in the 1980s, and many celebrities moved in to be near the theater district.
On August 29, 1959, life imitated art. Two years after Westside Story opened on Broadway, gang violence visited this playground at Forty-sixth Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. A group of Puerto Rican teenagers calling themselves the Vampires planned to meet with an allied gang here at midnight. When they arrived and found boys they did not know, war chief Salvador Agrón stabbed Robert Young, who made it to the light-colored building at 449 West Forty-sixth Street before dying. Anthony Krzesinski sustained chest and groin wounds from Agrón and died in the hallway of number 447. Convicted of the murders, Agrón became the youngest man to sit on death row, at age 17. Gov. Nelson Rockefeller commuted Agrón's sentence days before his execution in 1962. He was released on parole in 1979 and died at the age of 43 in 1986.
This window adjacent to Police Plaza memorializes one of the deadliest buildings during the Revolutionary War, the Rhinelander Sugar House. Some historians claimed it had been turned into a British prison, where captured soldiers died from exposure, starvation, and disease. It is estimated that more people died in British prisons during the war than on the battlefield. For 100 years following the conflict, the Rhinelander building, once located at Rose (now William) and Duane Streets, had the reputation of being the most haunted site in the city. People heard moans and saw shadows at the windows and arms reaching through the bars. A new building replaced the old one in 1892, and when an original window from the prison was incorporated into the structure, ghostly activities continued in that area. In 1968, the city built the headquarters of the New York Police Department on the site, and the prison window was moved into the side of an obscure structure south of the plaza, perhaps to avoid further ghostly manifestations.
The Asch Building, at the intersection of Washington Place and Greene Street, housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on its top three floors in 1911. Most of the employees were young immigrant women. Moods ran high on March 25, 1911, because quitting time came sooner on Saturdays. On the eighth floor at 4:40 p.m., as employees gathered their coats and belongings, supervisors started to pass out paychecks, and someone threw a cigarette butt into one of the bins. The tissue paper and scrap fabric burst into a ball of fire. People grabbed buckets of water that were on hand as required, but the materials were too flammable, rendering the water useless. The flames quickly engulfed the main exit area, so people ran to the rear exit, but workers had to wait for a manager to come and unlock the door. Brave elevator operators made as many trips as possible until the fire blocked their way. Someone called the operator on the 10th floor, and she alerted executives but never returned to her switchboard, so no one could then call the ninth-floor sewers.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Ghosts and Murders of Manhattan"
Copyright © 2013 Elise Gainer.
Excerpted by permission of Arcadia Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Deadly Places, Public Spaces 9
2 Lively Hotels and Homes 35
3 The Famous and the Infamous 53
4 Churches, Museums, and Mysterious Institutions 79
5 Spirited Taverns and Theaters 111